Porcupine Crossing

Porcupine on the Boardwalk

On Sunday Deb and I went birding together. It had been a while since she’s been able to get out, so she was missing out on a lot of new spring arrivals; I suggested we head out to the Dunrobin area which has been very productive so far this spring. We got lucky on some of the back roads where we spotted a Red-tailed Hawk perching on a telephone pole right next to the road and a pair of bluebirds checking out a bluebird house in the same area. Savannah Sparrows were singing on fence posts, an Eastern Meadowlark was singing on a telephone wire right above the road, and Turkey Vultures were soaring overhead.

We saw a kestrel sitting on a telephone wire in the distance and were studying it through the scope when a car pulled up beside us. An older gentlemen rolled down his window to speak with us and, as I was expecting him to ask what we were looking at, I was totally unprepared for what he actually said: “You’re not crossing any fences to take photos, are you?”

There was absolutely no humour and no tolerance in his tone. Deb told him no, and I mumbled that we were just watching a bird through the telescope. That seemed to satisfy him and he drove off. If I’d had my wits about me, though, I would have said we were both members of the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club and abide by their birding code of ethics. I found it disconcerting that he would stop just to ask us that, though we had set up the scope on the shoulder of the road and were well back from the fence. Perhaps he’d had a bad experience with birders or photographers trespassing on his land.

We left the area and drove toward the Thomas Dolan Parkway. Deb noticed out a group of Wild Turkeys in a field. Two females were busy grazing on the grass while a male was busy trying to get their attention by showing off his beautiful tail feathers.

Wild Turkey displaying

As we were photographing the turkeys I realized I could hear two different birds singing in the distance. One was a Field Sparrow singing its accelerating “bouncing ball” song and the other was a Brown Thrasher with its distinctive paired phrases.  We couldn’t see either bird at first, but then the Brown Thrasher flew in to a tree still barren of leaves and continued its song.  We got some nice scope views of this bird.

Along Thomas Dolan we rolled down our windows and listened for Eastern Towhees.  We heard more Field Sparrows and a couple of White-throated Sparrows, and then I heard a towhee singing somewhere right beside the road.  We pulled over and got out to have a look. Deb spotted him first, perched on a low branch of a leafless tree. We were debating whether or not we should try to get closer when he flew over our heads and across the road. He landed in another leafless tree directly in front of the sun.

Eastern Towhee singing

I walked around the tree in order to get a better view of the towhee; I wasn’t able to get too far because of the rampant vegetation growing here. I took a few photos, and then took a short video of him singing (I would have allowed the video to run longer except a car was speeding down Thomas Dolan toward us). Most field guides render this song phonetically as “Drink your tee-ee-eea!”, whereas this fellow is clearly singing, “Tricked you, heeheeheehee!” I find I remember birds’ songs much better when I come up with my own phonetic renditions rather than relying on what the field guide says.

After leaving the Eastern Towhee we drove back up to Dunrobin Road, spotting two more Turkey Vultures soaring overhead and a Great Blue Heron standing on a tree limb above a creek. We spent some time exploring the Bill Mason Center where we heard Swamp Sparrows singing in the marsh and saw an unknown buteo soaring overhead. The clouds had thickened again, so the light was terrible for trying to discern field marks on the bird circling above us. Fortunately we didn’t need to see any field marks to identify the single Wilson’s Snipe winnowing above us…the long-billed sihouette and the spooky sound of the wind rushing through its feathers were enough to confirm the snipe’s identity.

In the woods we came across a flock of Ruby-crowned Kinglets and some Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. A Ruffed Grouse calmly but quickly strode off into the woods after Deb discovered it standing next to the path right beside us. She also saw a Hermit Thrush walking along a log among a tangle of tree limbs; I wasn’t quite quick enough to put my binoculars on him. These beautiful red trilliums were much more cooperative:

Trillium in Bloom

Trillium in Bloom

We also saw a few violets, though only a few were in bloom. Larger clumps were growing in the open area near the old quarry.

Violets are Blue

About a dozen Bufflehead ducks were still present, though the Ring-necked Ducks appear to have moved on. There were no bullfrogs sitting at the edge of the water, probably because it was too cold.

We explored the open field at the back of the trail where I had seen some bear scat last summer. A Northern Flicker, some White-throated Sparrows and a single Field Sparrow were about the only birds of interest, so we turned around and headed back out. We were crossing the boardwalk when we noticed a small porcupine ambling right down the boardwalk toward us. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and stopped to take a few pictures. We both stood very still to see what it would do.

Porcupine on the Boardwalk

The porcupine saw us, stopped, turned around as if to go back, then turned around when it realized we weren’t making any move toward it. Deb and I lined up on the same side of the boardwalk so that the porcupine could see that it had room to cross the boardwalk. Slowly he approached, and to my surprise he stopped right at my feet and stared up at me! I looked down at him but didn’t make a move (not even to take a picture!) and after a minute he continued on his way.

While watching the porcupine I heard the grunting of a Virginia Rail somewhere in the reeds. I waited until the porcupine was well away from us to pull out my iPod and play the Virginia Rail call. Not one but two rails responded; the first even stopped to preen in an open area.

Virginia Rail preening

Our last stop of the day was Shirley’s Bay. To my surprise, when I called for permission to go birding on the dyke I was refused and told not to go beyond the fence as they were “firing live”. Deb and I walked through the woods and stopped at the gate blocking the entrance to the dyke but weren’t able to see much. We had better luck in the woods with a couple of Red Admirals:

Red Admirals

I really enjoyed our outing to the Dunrobin area. Altogether I tallied four year birds (Eastern Towhee, Brown Thrasher, Virginia Rail and the unseen Field Sparrows), but the best sighting of unquestionably the porcupine on the boardwalk. When I told a coworker about the porcupine encounter he asked me if I was scared. I told him no, I honestly hadn’t considered being scared. For one thing, the porcupine and I belong to different parts of the food chain – he’s not likely to see me as prey or want to eat me. For another, like most mammals, it will only attack if it feels threatened and has no avenue of escape. A porcupine would much rather head for the nearest shelter, such as under a log or up a tree, than risk confrontation. If it is thwarted in its attempt to escape, only then will the porcupine hump its back, stomp its back feet, and lash its tail threateningly. The momentum of the tail may detach loose quills and send them flying through the air, giving the impression that they were thrown. Like a skunk that sprays, this defence is only used as a last resort, for the threatened animal has no guarantee that its defence will deter the mammal attacking it…or survive the encounter.

Luckily we all survived this encounter with our skin intact, making it the most memorable porcupine encounter to date!

3 thoughts on “Porcupine Crossing

  1. What an exciting day! Love the trillium photos.

    I saw a porcupine at Shirley’s Bay recently in a tree eating freshly budded leaves. One of the few times I’ve seen a porcupine, by daylight, that wasn’t an inert lump: wish I’d had my camera.

    Re towhees, I find that each one sounds a little different from the next (judging by the many towhees I’ve heard in the southern states.) The rhythm is always the same but intonation varies. Also I love your idea of a good voice text 😀

    The man in the car must have had a bad experience or two with some of the less-than-ethical nature photographers around Ottawa. Too bad they’re giving us all a bad name.

  2. Shirley’s Bay is a good spot to see porcupines; one has been hanging around Rifle Road for a while. I rarely see porcupines on the ground, so it’s always a treat when I do!

    I suppose birds in different regions sound slightly different. The Common Yellowthroat is one bird I know of that has different regional “dialects”. I never thought of this being the reason why I hear something other than what my field guide suggests!

  3. Pingback: Highlights from 2012 | The Pathless Wood

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